U.S. Jewish Leaders Cautiously Optimistic After Meeting With Sharansky Over Western Wall Access

A multi-denominational representation of leaders discussed the obstacles of the Jewish Agency chairman's plan; some were frustrated that a time frame was not set.

NEW YORK – Jewish American leaders across the religious spectrum expressed cautious optimism after a meeting on Tuesday with Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky about plans to expand prayer space at the Western Wall. However several were concerned at the lack of a specific time frame and frustrated that, for all the talk, nothing was set in writing. 

Following months of increased tension in Israel surrounding Women of the Wall, an organization advocating women's rights to don prayer shawls and hold monthly services at the Western Wall, Sharansky was asked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to broker a solution.

Sharansky's plan to renovate and expand the area of the Western Wall known as Robinson’s Arch received mixed reactions. According to those present, he spent much of the meeting, which took place at the offices of the Jewish Federations of North America, reviewing the obstacles facing his proposal – particularly those from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

As a result, some of the leaders were frustrated that, for all the talk, no specific time frame was set.

"We want to see progress made,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “We have been davening at Robinson’s Arch for years, bringing 20,000 people a year in various groups,” she said of the Conservative movement’s Israel-based Masorti organization. What’s more, there has been talk of renovating the Robinson’s Arch area for mixed-gender prayer services since 2003 — though not to the ambitious degree that Sharansky proposed in April — without any plans moving forward. “We’re really eager to see ground broken,” Schonfeld said.

She added that Sharansky’s plan is still just in the discussion phase, something she and others are eager to change. “We’ve never seen this proposal in writing,” said Schonfeld.

Also discussed at the meeting was broadening the authority of oversight of the Western Wall to include representatives from all streams of Judaism, which would “make it consistent with the fact that it is a holy site for all of world Jewry, so under the oversight of all of world Jewry," said Schonfeld. "It would be an incredibly important step and that could start immediately.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, also participated in this week’s meeting and described it as “an update as to where we are.”

“Natan is still very optimistic,” Wernick said. “The group is cautiously still optimistic as we were before. The main thing is that there seems to be a desire to start as soon as possible with what is possible at the moment while we work on the various elements that need to be done to complete the whole project.”

Wernick declined to get into the details of what was discussed at the meeting, “because I don’t think they’ve been determined or finalized yet.” He did, however, speak admiringly of Sharansky’s approach to the thorny issues involved. “Sharansky’s a chess player,” said Wernick. “Sharansky is a significant leader in the Jewish world and we have lots of confidence in him.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Wernick, Schonfeld and others were loath to speak specifically about which representatives of the Orthodox movements were present, underlining how freighted the issue of expanding the rights of non-Orthodox Jews at the Western Wall is and how fragile the coalition of denominational representatives at these meetings.

It was Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the centrist Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, who participated, along with Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel. The RCA had not been at the first gathering in early April, though it issued a statement at the time supporting Sharansky’s proposals.

“We heard that the meeting had taken place, we made clear that we wanted to be at the table and that we expected to be at the table,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the RCA, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting himself. “From what I understand it was an oversight on their part.”

“We’re interested in supporting positions that will enhance the sanctity of the Kotel, and not in machlokhes (fighting),” said Dratch.

Anat Hoffman, chairperson of Women of the Wall, was in New York on a long-planned fundraising trip, she said, as the meeting took place but was not invited to participate.

“We are actually neighbors in Jerusalem,” she said of Sharansky. “So no, I am not meeting him in New York.”

She was, however, invited to get together with other meeting participants after the gathering with Sharansky concluded. Later, she marveled at the experience of being in the same room with rabbis from a wide range of denominations.    

“I’ve never been to a meeting like this. It’s really something,” she said afterward.

Asked if she is at all concerned that the representatives meeting with Sharansky have different priorities than Women of the Wall — namely that they are working toward improved and expanded egalitarian prayer space, while Women of the Wall wants protection and the right to pray in the current women’s section— Hoffman said, “The interests are different. There is room for everybody there. There must be room.”

She commended Sharansky’s approach. “His process is terrific. It’s not litigation, not legislation. It is negotiation. That is the right thing to do, in the best spirit of Mandela and King. That’s the way to go.”

“Women of the Wall were a foot in the door to start this dialogue," she said. "Women of the Wall has an impatience that is important to notice. We have waited too long and have had it with waiting. Hopefully other people are also becoming impatient with the way the holy sites are run. This impatience can propel change. Whenever people are impatient it’s going to change what’s happening.”

Meeting participants said that another New York gathering with Sharansky is slated to take place in July.

Reuters
Natan Sharansky.
Tomer Appelbaum